- Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
- Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
- From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
- Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.”
- Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”
- Where did Chaucer get his writing done? In absolute squalor, apparently: “From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favor bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate … The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls … Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and fecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory, you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse.’ ”
- A Christian publisher has pulled a best-selling memoir, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, after its author, Alex Malarkey, admitted that he made the story up. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” Malarkey wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
- When he died in 1989, John Cassavetes left behind a lot of unpublished or unproduced work—novels, plays, screenplays. Now his last project, a play called Begin the Beguine, has finally had its premiere, in Vienna of all places …
- Michel Houellebecq, Francophobe: “Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t ‘delight in depicting our follies,’ as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of Submission might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue.”
- On Arthur Goldhammer, who’s translated more than a hundred books from French to English: “Translation is like forming any kind of human relationship … When you meet a new person you think it might be a friend, you are still sometimes wary, you are not completely familiar with the kinds of exchange you are going to have with this person, so you are more cautious at the beginning. Caution is one of the things a translator has to overcome.”
Chaucer scholars have generally settled on April 17, 1387, as the date his pilgrims departed for Canterbury—an historic and storied journey that has been, for more than six centuries, the bane of every student’s existence. A brief refresher: in the Canterbury Tales, twenty-nine pilgrims and a narrator vie to out-perorate one another on what must have been a tedious excursion to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine, in, yes, Canterbury. Their prize? A free meal at a hotel restaurant.
Thus ensued several thousand lines of fart jokes, prurient asides, murderous Jews, and dubious blancmange, all of it now forever inscribed in the annals of literature.
The Ellesmere manuscript—written shortly after Chaucer’s death, in the early fifteenth century—is considered the definitive version of the Tales. It was produced on vellum, and it features involved, colorful illustrations of many of the pilgrims, pictured above. (None of their more scandalous exploits are depicted, alas, though it may not have been terribly edifying to see a drawing of a man being branded on the buttocks, anyway.)
I had an English teacher who made a shaky but memorable case for the Tales’ contemporary relevance. There were, he avowed, new chapters being written every day. All you had to do was book a long trip on a Greyhound bus or board a transcontinental flight, and you’d find strangers from all walks of life foisting their stories upon you, daring you to one-up them, whether you drew them out or not. Indeed, he said, these stories would hinge on the same crimes of passion that Chaucer’s pilgrims found so enthralling. It wasn’t as if any of us had tired of hearing about adultery. And so we should appreciate Chaucer, he said, because almost nothing in storytelling had changed in the years since the Tales.
Having encountered only this morning a garrulous and kind of lewd fellow-commuter, I can say: my teacher was totally right.
Sitting alone in my tiny bookshop on a cold February morning, I have the sensation that I’ve conjured a dream into reality. The light is crisp and blue through the door. A flight of red paper swallows—a Valentine homage to Chaucer’s poem “The Parliament of Fowls”—hangs from the ceiling, fluttering quietly from the heat whooshing out of the floor grate. The room is small, just shy of two hundred fifty square feet, and an old pickled farm table sits squarely in the middle. The top of the table is covered with books, and the shelves lining two of the room’s walls also contain a patchwork of brightly colored spines.
Valentine-themed woodblock prints handmade by my husband line the farm table and a grid of nature-inspired prints hold a wall. We live on an old dairy farm up in northeast Pennsylvania, and instead of cows in our three-bay English barn, we have two etching presses. Mark carves the images into blocks of clear pine, inks them up, and sends them through the press, cranking the smooth silver wheel like a captain on a ship. This is our store together, a kind of celebration of works on paper. We live on Moody Road, and so we call the shop Moody Road Studios.
An artist and a writer, respectively, my husband and I had both been teaching and working in the city for more than a decade, until a little over a year ago. The idea of running a bookshop never entered our consciousness while in New York, mostly because it never could have happened. Space and funding were impossibilities—as one might guess, a writer and an artist in business together don’t quite make for a crack commerce force. But here, on Main Street in the small town of Honesdale, everything clicked into place. Read More
- Geoffrey Chaucer “provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb: of a bird: to utter a succession of light tremulous notes; to chirp continuously.” See this, and his other contributions to language, on this handy-dandy word cloud.
- Garcia Marquez takes Mexico City! (He already lives there, but the city is celebrating fifty years of calling Gabo a son with some forty thousand posters.)
- This flowchart outlines how to publish a book (and makes it look so easy and colorful!).
- William Faulkner and Woody Allen are in a feud. Okay, it’s actually the Faulkner Estate and Sony Pictures, which used a Faulkner quote in Midnight in Paris.
- Happy birthday, American Antiquarian Society.